A musical childhood, with dog and a kind nun

14 12 2020

I was chatting via email with a good friend in the US earlier today and something came up about music (he’s a professional muso as well as a retired programmer). I mentioned something about having forgotten the music theory I learned way back when, which prompted him to ask me how I knew about music. Which then got me delving into the memory banks of my childhood growing up in a small country town in Western Australia (about 800 people), where the only people who taught music were the nuns from the local Catholic school. I didn’t go to that school, but I did music lessons (classical piano) after school at the manse.

I did piano lessons with the nuns from about age 7 until I was about 13 or so, and with that I had to sit the AMEB (Australian Music Examination Board) exams in practical and theory. From memory, we had to go to Bunbury (big town!) once a year to perform our practical examination on a grand piano on stage at the Railways Institute, with the examiners, parents, and other students sitting in the audience (it was TERRIFYING, even though the audience was very small). I can’t remember how the theory exams were administered. I think I got to about Grade 6 in practical and about Grade 5 in theory. You had to have at least Grade 7 at both to get your AMusA (pron. ay-muss-ay) to enter into the music program at high school and/or university.

I remember almost NONE of the music theory now, though I can still draw a treble clef without hesitation 😊 (and yes, I just drew one just now to test that I still could!). And I haven’t played piano for the past 30 years, though if you put me in front of a piano now, I MIGHT be able to knock out the first few bars of Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’! I had my piano from childhood until about 1990, when I moved and there was no space for it. I lent it to my sister for my niece to use (my niece was quite musically talented—she went on to play cello and sing). Unfortunately, my sister and her husband were doing renovations and put the piano out in a covered area near their pool. A big storm came and the piano got badly water damaged and destroyed. Such a shame—it was an old German piano, with a wrought-iron frame. In the right light, you could see patches in the beautifully polished walnut panels that showed where candlestick holders had been, so it was likely from the 1890s or thereabouts, perhaps even earlier.

Back to the nuns…

The music room at the manse was at the end of a corridor. A door opened to an outside staircase to allow the music students to come and go without going through the manse. If someone hadn’t finished their lesson, you waited at the top of the stairs until they came out—you never went into the manse except to the music room. Most of nuns who taught music were absolute harridans. One was particularly vengeful and nasty—if you played a bum note, she hit you with a steel ruler, edge side down and then you were expected to play it note perfect even though your hands were screaming in agony. Classical piano wasn’t easy to play at the best of times and kids don’t have a very large hand span to stretch to make all the notes in the chords.

I clearly remember one lovely nun—Sister Bride—who was young and kind. My boxer dog, Cassie, used to try to follow me to my music lessons after school, and mostly I could tell her to go home and she would. But one day she just wouldn’t. Having a dog at the manse was a huge no-no, so Sister Bride made sure she shut the door to the outside stairs so that Cassie could stay on the landing until I’d finished. Sister Bride must’ve heard the rattle of the Mother Superior’s rosary one day and realised that I’d be in trouble for having Cassie there, so she called Cassie inside into the music room and hid her under her habit!!!! A minute or so later, Mother Superior poked her nose into the music room to see if all was OK. Sister Bride and I giggled a lot after she left. Cassie was a good girl and didn’t make a sound under the full habit of Sister Bride (the nuns were ‘brown joeys’—sisters of St Joseph, who wore dark brown, full-length habits, and a full pristine white wimple). Sister Bride left not long after that —I really don’t think she was cut out to be a nun—and I have no idea what happened to her. The rest of the nuns were either unmemorable or were nasty bitches who didn’t like kids much.


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